Sunday, April 10, 2011

Meeting Mr. Bradbury

Every so often a book comes along that grabs your consciousness, gives it a good spin, winds you up, and turns you loose in a new direction. The Professor's House by Willa Cather. Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. A handful of others -- and now Zen in the Art of Writing, all essays about craft and process at a point in my life when I'm finally able to appreciate them.

The book is about both living and writing with gusto. Zeal. Passion. It takes on elitist literary attitudes and overly-commercial sensibilities and focuses on the power of writing to make life BETTER, as opposed to more agonizing, or even profitable. So many of Bradbury's words are like much more eloquent reflections of thoughts I've held for years, and they draw me back to a moment in high school when I visited Eureka College as part of a writing competition and met Mr. Bradbury in person.

I was in the third row and giddy as a schoolboy. Alright, so I was a schoolboy -- but giddy EVEN for a schoolboy. On stage and in the flesh was the guy who had sparked my imagination with The October County and Dandelion Wine (both of which still hold their enshrined positions on my writing desk), and who had also managed to write Fahrenheit 451 -- a book teachers made me read that I actually enjoyed.

Plus, I'd seen him on TV.

I watched in a trance as he told stories of his own childhood: going to a movie for the first time, seeing Mars through a telescope, talking with members of the traveling circus as they blew through his small, Illinois hometown. His memory was impressive (he claims remembering the day of his birth, his own circumcision, and the like) but even more impressive was his childlike enthusiasm -- so effectively and immaculately preserved in the body of a 60+ year-old man. Infectious, even to a teenager.

So much so, it inspired me to do something stupid.

When Mr. Bradbury made his exit from the stage and the crowd, I stood up, left my teacher and classmates, and chased the living legend into the stairwell. He was already halfway up -- much faster than he looked I might add.

"Mr. Bradbury!" I shouted up after him. I clutched a story in my hand -- a short piece of science fiction I was proud of. It was a story about people who paid enormous sums of money to live in a dream state after the world had been destroyed by a nuclear war. Ray Bradbury had inspired me to write it, and I needed him to know.

To my surprise, he stopped. He descended the stairs and he smiled.

"I'd be happy to take your story," he said, taking the manuscript and shaking my hand. "Whatever you do, keep writing. Will you? Keep writing like crazy."

I promised I would. And I have. But maybe not enough. His words echo back to me now, rattling around in my brain along with notions of mortality, urgency, success, failure, and art.

In many ways, Bradbury makes me feel like a coward.

I hold a day job. I help run a theatre. I do other things. While Bradbury was diligently writing at least 1,000 words a day from 20-30, I was traveling. While he was sucking down instant noodles and slurping from cans of soup, I was hedging my bets on other careers, other sources of income, in case the writing didn't work out. I ate (and eat) quite well. Perhaps the definition of cowardice is a contingency plan.

My father once told me: "If you don't make it as a writer, you can cry into your beer and move on. If you don't make it at all, you'll have more serious problems." Maybe. But maybe not. And certainly there will be plenty of tears and plenty of beer either way.

There is a certain thrill to throwing all caution to the wind and leaping head-first into the life of a writer. Certainly, there are so many ideas clamoring to get out of my head that if I had eight full hours a day (and the ability to write that long) I'd never be able to let them all out.

At one time in my life, I did nothing but help them escape.

Several years ago, I found myself in the unlikely small town of Sterling, IL. It was a very cheap place to live, and I was committed to living off the fat (ha!) of a five-month political job in Florida. While in Sterling, I worked for 3 hours a day as a playground monitor at a local school and spent the rest of my time writing. Hell, there was nothing else TO DO. There was a park down the street where you could throw a Frisbee and a main street with mediocre coffee -- but then there was the ever-ready portal of the computer. And that was what I turned to day in and day out, and during that time I sold more fiction and freelance stories and had more leads on new ones than ever before.

And I'm certainly a better writer now. But the professional exhilaration of that time remains unmatched. I realize now it's because that was the only time in my life where writing was really number one, in thought and deed.

Well to hell with it.

The philosophy of compromise has played its part, but its time is waning. I have a son now. An amazing wife and a great job, but still I must do more. And I can. Just as surely as I can feel Ray Bradbury's words reaching from the pages of his book and back in time to a sixteen-year-old boy on the stairs who made a promise -- one he intends to keep.